“I like raccoons. I can’t understand why they’re so underappreciated—not detested like rats or opossums maybe, but not known for delivering thrills either. They’re surely one of the most cuddly looking and admirable synanthropes—what biologists call species that succeed in the human environment.” –Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones (p. 260)
One of the current favorite stuffed animals of my daughter is a little raccoon named Starlight. We frequently see raccoons (real ones) in our backyard and it is why Starlight had such appeal when my daughter was making her stuffed animal selection in the Smoky Mountains. We also have a beloved skunk living under our deck, which we rarely see but frequently smell, and opossums and deer are also regular interlopers in our yard. We occasionally see signs of fox or coyotes (i.e., scat—another of my child’s obsessions). And of course squirrels. Lots of squirrels. We’ve been live-trapping Peromyscus in our house with the change in weather (apparently our five cats have other things to do) and there are quite a few indicators that the moles have a virtual city beneath the surface of our yard. This is part of the mammal diversity of our neighborhood. It is our household’s philosophy to love what is common, as much as what is scarce.
Mooallem’s Wild One brings up the strangeness of valuing species only when they are near their evolutionary end. The examples of trying to save a butterfly or a crane species when the numbers are down to dozens does seem like a futile effort and highlights how failure to protect what is common ends up in difficult and sometimes awkward situations. (Mimicking the mating dance of a crane in order to get a sperm sample that can be shipped to a zoo to inseminate a female of the beleaguered species? The horror.) I am reminded of Elizabeth Kolbert’s comments that many of the species on the verge of extinction today (as well as the Pleistocene mammals) have natural histories and life histories that make them inherently susceptible to extinction when they live on a planet with humans. The story of the characters involved in saving the butterflies and cranes often ends with a kind of hopelessness and acknowledgement of an unavoidable failure—but a species at the point where intervention becomes necessary is already in a precarious situation—that we save any of them from immediate extinction is actually somewhat surprising. While there have been success stories, it is hard to wonder what the long-term success will be given the price that has been paid in genetic diversity, isolation from other populations, and the abundance within and between populations. It’s like opening Anna Karenina and reading: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What is the probability that this story is going to have a happy ending? The stories in Wild Ones of the polar bear, Lange’s metalmark, and the whooping crane have an even lower probability of a happy ending than poor Anna.
I am torn between the two ideas that, on the one hand, symbolic efforts matter, and on the other hand, we need to be realistic and triage our efforts. What would we do in a war zone (of which my knowledge stems from watching reruns of M.A.S.H.)? Do you want doctors to make symbolic efforts to save a person that is likely past saving or is triage essential to save more lives? Of course, it’s not actually a war zone in the US, at least—we have 7.3 billion people on planet earth, and we have more than enough people who could help bring back species that are on the brink of extinction—and the humans may benefit from that effort as well. However, in the medical field, it is preferred to avoid a crisis by focusing on preventive care. But we seem to lack an appreciation for preventative care with wildlife. My neighbors do not appreciate the presence of the raccoons, opossums, or (especially) skunks, which puts the common species in the community around us at risk.
In the biodiversity crisis, it does seem like the other war zone analogy is that conservationists are learning as they go—they are trying to save species in the absence of the necessary information and sometimes without adequate resources. Certainly that appeared to be the case in all three of the stories in Wild Ones. There is often a limited ability to do the needed sorts of experiments to determine best practices for some species. The crane migration is heroic, but without experimental tests to determine the techniques that will lead to successfully making the whooping cranes independent of human fostering and migration, then we are not going to make fast progress.
I liked Brooke Pennypacker’s comment in Wild Ones that “Humanity caused the problem to begin with, and so it’s very hard for humanity to solve the problem. Because it’s humanity! … It’s not a bird project…It’s a people project. The birds are an excuse for doing something good” (p. 278). In the end, I am all for efforts that may be largely symbolic—we created the crisis, not on purpose exactly, but we created it. The least we can do is to try to help species return to being more common. Maybe in the end, that will make us more human.